Banda music is the soundtrack of modern Mexico, with its thumping polka beat and trumpets blasting everywhere from rural fairs to working-class Mexico City weddings. And it’s increasingly made in the USA.
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Once the equivalent of country music, with lyrics about rural life sung by men from Mexico’s western badlands, it is more and more being produced in the suburbs of Phoenix and Los Angeles, and sung by Mexican Americans who grew up speaking English and listening to rock and rap.
And as U.S.-born singers gain prominence, it’s becoming more akin to gangster rap, with a slicker sound, lyrics that praise drug traffickers and videos with guns and expensive cars filmed on Los Angeles’ palm-lined streets.
This month, two U.S.-born banda singers have had Top 10 hits in Mexico and the United States.
Billboard’s No. 1 Mexican regional song is “Quien Se Anima,” or “Who Will Dare,” a tune by baby-faced, 24-year-old Pasadena, Calif.-native Gerardo Ortiz that asks who will dare enter a business where “there is lots of money, pleasures, banda music and women.”
Ortiz’s “Damaso,” about a leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, has topped the playlists in Mexico for weeks. Its video, with a lion, briefcases full of cash and flaunted pistols, has been viewed on YouTube more than 61 million times.
“The King of the Drunks” by Lupillo Rivera of Long Beach, California, has also been among Mexico’s top 10 songs.
It is a reversal of musical direction for a genre in which Mexican bands traditionally sang tunes popular with immigrants in the U.S. nostalgic for their homeland. Young Mexican Americans have embraced banda and many musicians now first gain success in the United States before heading south to sing in dirt-floored rodeo arenas and auditoriums in Mexico.
“These singers were born [in the U.S.] but their parents instilled the love for Mexico in them,” said Stephanie Himonidis, morning prime-time DJ for La Raza, a Los Angeles radio station that plays Mexican music.
Ortiz spent his childhood in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa, the birthplace of both banda music and many of Mexico’s top drug traffickers. But it was upon his return to Southern California that he found fame and fortune after self-promoting his ballads and narcocorridos on YouTube. Narcocorridos are songs about drug traffickers that often glorify them and their lifestyle.
A record executive offered Ortiz a contract after seeing him perform at an underground party at a packed Los Angeles warehouse in 2008.
“I grew up on a ranch but when I came back to Los Angeles, a big city where there is all kinds of music, I fused the music from the ranch with the music of the moment and people who didn’t like corridos began listening to them,” Ortiz said.
Narcocorridos are banned from the radio in parts of Mexico. But in the U.S., artists sing them on prime-time awards shows on Spanish-language television, where series about the lives of drug traffickers have become popular.
Ortiz said some of his narcocorridos were inspired by those shows.
While singing narcocorridos is relatively safe north of the border, it carries risks in Mexico.
Ortiz was in an SUV in the Mexican state of Colima when gunmen opened fire, killing his manager in 2011. And in May, Phoenix-born Tomas Tovar Rascon, better known by his stage name “Tito Torbellino,” was shot to death at a restaurant in the border state of Sonora, where he was scheduled to perform.
Authorities have not publicly identified a motive in the killing of Rascon, but in the past singers have been killed by rivals of the traffickers they praise or by gangsters offended they wouldn’t perform privately for them.
Not all banda musicians sing about drug traffickers.
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Luis Coronel, an 18-year-old Tucson native who won the Artist of the Year Debut at this year’s Billboard Latin Music Awards, only sings about love and heartbreak. He is attracting a new generation of fans, mainly teenage girls who follow his every step on Instagram and Facebook.
“Like their parents, these new generations have a need to listen to music that can bring them a little bit of Mexico and that’s why you have more and more young singers in this genre,” La Raza’s Himonidis said.